“Pai, Pai, Pai, you should definitely go to Pai.”
These were the words of my new friend Esme, mimicking what every other traveller in Thailand had told her. She then proceeded to tell me how much she enjoyed her time there and, that I should definitely go to Pai.
So, I went to Pai, a small town in Northern Thailand, with astronomical expectations and, full disclosure, I wasn’t THAT IMPRESSED.
My biggest piece of advice for anyone hearing the hype about Pai is lower your expectations. I went expecting Nirvana and found a mix of lads out for a party and smug backpackers who thought they’d discovered paradise.
With the following guide, please allow me to shatter all of your dreams, then go ahead and have an awesome time.
The Journey to Pai
I travelled to Pai from Chiang Mai, my hostel ‘On Point’ (very fun) booked me onto a minibus for 250 baht. I later found out there are cheaper minibuses around. You can actually book directly with AYA Service and get your transfer for 150 baht.
Do book ahead though. I met some lads (for in Pai there are plenty of lads) who waited until the day they wanted to travel and ended up having to hire a car.
The road to Pai is beautiful, it is also very bendy, it has 762 turns and official looking signs that show someone throwing up. Take motion sickness pills. I bought some Dimin (5 baht) from the 7/11, these are very effective but, be warned, they also make you very drowsy for several hours. (Read more about the puke-inducing journey to Pai here.)
Accommodation in Pai
I stayed in the Common Grounds Hostel which is right in the middle of the town. It’s got good facilities and I met some really nice people there. At first glance it was entirely my scene, it had a laid-back lounge area with lots of places to sit and chat or lie down and relax, good beds and spacious dorm rooms, a bar which opened at 5 pm and enough bathrooms.
However, I ended up in a room with a couple of lads who decided to bring girls back to the dorm for nocturnal activities. One of whom forgot his key so knocked on the door until I opened it for him and his new female friend. The other gentleman happened to have the bunk above me. These four had a loud conversation, just to make sure everyone else was awake, and then went at it.
I was just too British to switch the lights on and tell them to f**k off and f**k somewhere else, so I left and sat outside to rant on Facebook. When I went back in they were done, but still being loud so I asked them to be quiet. The response I got was ‘Oh, are you trying to sleep?’ At this point it was 5 am so I responded in a less than polite fashion…
In the morning I had a phone, some shorts and a Durex wrapper on my bed, victims of the top bunk’s fumble.
Being kept awake by my roommates put me in a terrible mood with Pai in general and my hostel specifically. Apparently, sex in the dorms is a frequent occurrence there. The next night my friend was kept awake and someone else described the hostel as ‘their nightmare’.
There was another thirty-something staying at common Grounds who had sprung for a private and that’s what I should have done. But you never know with hostels. Some other friends had a lovely quiet room. If you want to stay there I’d say get a private. They have two beds so you could even share. Or stay somewhere else, with fewer ‘lads’.
Food in Pai
After my intensely negative report on accommodation, I guess I should write something positive: the food in Pai is great.
There’s a night market with cheap and delicious food that runs every night. My particular favourite was to gyoza stall (six dumplings for 50 baht) which was also open during the day.
We ate breakfast at ‘I’m fine’ several times, which was fine. I had a truly excellent burger from Maya Burger Queen and would heartily recommend that. There are so many bars and restaurants you could go somewhere different every day and not run out of places to eat for months.
Food in Pai is easy, there are loads of Western and vegetarian options and all the cafes are a similar price. I know I’ll sound ungrateful but it’s almost too easy. The Kad Manee food market in Chiang Mai is full of local people eating cheap and delicious food by a lake, that felt real and wonderful, Pai has been designed for tourists. The food is great though.
The Sun Coffee’s iced Thai coffee is a packaging nightmare, coffee in a plastic bag, in a paper bag, in a plastic bag, with a straw, however, it is also almost a reason to visit Pai on its own. My little group were in agreement that it is the best Thai iced coffee out there, it’s also only 25 baht.
Activities in Pai
I probably made one big error in terms of activities in Pai, I didn’t get on a scooter.
The first day I was too tired to try riding a scooter for the first time, thanks to the lads in my dorm.
The second we’d booked a tour and the third I was too hungover (more on that later). This seems to be the magic of Pai, zooming around the stunning countryside, stopping to explore when you feel like it. The scooters are very cheap and there’s also a guy at Vespa who gives scooter lessons for 200 baht.
That said the tour we did was very fun. It took in the Lod Caves where we were taken around by a guide and rode on a bamboo boat through the dark. It went to the Hot Springs which were fine and finished at the Pai Canyon.
Pai Canyon is excellent, sunset there is a must do, although it’s not something we got to do as the ‘Sunset at Pai Canyon’ part of the tour ended before the sun went down. The tour was 500 baht each for the day including all activities and a mediocre lunch, overall it was pretty good value. You could spend hours at Pai Canyon though, so perhaps try and get there on your own.
I also took a yoga class at Pai Yoga Shala. They have classes throughout the day for 200 baht. The class was in English and seemed to be pitched perfectly for newbies, so I had a lovely time and the more experienced member of our group still found it enjoyable. They offer a free transfer from the town to the class, definitely take them up on this as it’s a bit out of the way.
Party in Pai
If you like to party then Pai is for you. I enjoyed Spirit Bar, which had a neon hippy vibe and a cute rooftop area.
There are places to chill, places to dance and one place, the Jazz house, that does a short but fun pub quiz. (The quiz is on a Thursday and costs 50 baht per person.) There’s a pool bar called Pool Bar, which was lively, this is where I watched England lose their semi-final (hence the hangover).
There are also shroom shakes, which intrigued me, but I did not try. These are 500 baht each from Paradise.
People in Pai
I got to spend time with some truly lovely people in Pai. There is, however, a hard-core group of travellers who came to Pai and never left. Some are friendly and helpful, some are cold and cliquey, probably not wanting anything to change in their ‘hippy paradise’…
Pai-radise or not?
There are lots of people having lots of fun in Pai which is excellent and joyous and excellent.
However, if, like me, you occasionally need the option to exist in a quiet space you should look into booking a private room. It is impossible not to meet people and, if you’re struggling, there’s always the option to pop to one of the hostels for a drink and make friends there.
Getting out there and exploring will happen the way you feel comfortable, either on a scooter or the tour which takes you to all the big sights.
Pai is fine, Pai is easy and Pai is designed for tourists. There are more magical places out there.